Warsaw, Budapest, Prague and Bratislava all have young and progressive mayors who are now forming an unofficial alliance to fight for the rule of law. They'll also be seeking funding from the European Union.
Rafal Trzaskowski's clear victory in the Warsaw local elections in November last year was a bitter blow for Poland's ruling national-conservative PiS (Law and Justice) Party. Trzaskowski, the liberal Civic Platform candidate, won the prestigious duel in the first round with no need for a runoff, and took office as mayor of Warsaw. It was a humiliating defeat for his PiS opponent.
There was a similar, sensational outcome to the local elections in Budapest this October: Opposition challenger Gergely Karacsony managed to defeat the almost omnipotent Fides party of prime minister Viktor Orban and take over at city hall.
Read more: Poland's unlikely PiS dividend
Karacsony's first international call as mayor was to Trzaskowski. During their conversation, they came up with the idea of a "pact of free capitals" — a kind of format for cooperation among the mayors of the capitals of the four Visegrad Group countries: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
In Prague and Bratislava, too, young, progressive politicians have recently taken over.
They all share a similar vision of what a modern, European city should be: tolerant, open, environmentally aware. Another thing they have in common is an often tense relationship with their central governments, which are running the countries through the lens of left- or right-wing populism.
Karacsony dealt a blow to Hungary's ruling Fidesz party when he won Budapest's mayoral election in October
Applying for their own EU funding
"The populism we're dealing with in many countries is leading us to cooperate with each other. On the one hand, the pact is a symbol — which is not unimportant in politics — but it's also about concrete solutions, which we want to implement," Trzaskowski told DW.
Among other things, the four capitals want to make a joint application to Brussels for additional European Union funding, which they would like to receive directly, bypassing their central governments. "I've spoken to the EU Commission and leading politicians in Brussels about it. It is possible," Trzaskowski said.
Trzaskowski is strongly critical of the PiS' policies on municipal autonomy. He complains that local governments are treated like the enemy. "This government dislikes everything that's at all independent," he said. "It started with the measures taken against the judiciary and the public sector. Now we're the target."
Trzaskowski cited specific disadvantages for his municipality: "We receive less and less funding from tax revenue, and we're being burdened with additional costs, for example the reform of the school system. On top of that, they're trying to restrict our ability to pursue our own policies."
The central governments in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia won't be happy that the Visegrad capitals plan to apply for their own EU funding. Trzaskowski said there's nothing wrong with an initiative like this — quite the contrary, in fact: "The best representation in the European Parliament is that of [the German state of] Bavaria. In the EU, local regions and cities fight for their own interests. It's always been that way, and it always will be," he said. "It's not a measure that's being taken against the state, it's a supplement."
The 'Little Visegrad' format
But the "Pact of the Free Capitals" isn't just a question of money. These local politicians in Warsaw, Budapest, Prague and Bratislava also want to exchange experiences, to set priorities on things such as environmental protection and Smart City technologies, as well as champion values including tolerance, the rule of law and freedom of expression.
These are areas in which Poland and Hungary in particular have repeatedly been criticized by the EU Commission in the past few years. "Article 7 procedures" have been initiated against the two countries, after Brussels accused their respective governments of disregarding principles of the rule of law and the fundamental values of the EU.
Last Friday, the mayors of the four Central European capitals met in Berlin at the celebrations for the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, and discussed the initiative on the sidelines. It's being unofficially dubbed the "Pact of the Free Capitals," or "Little Visegrad" — a contrast with the "big" Visegrad Group, in which politicians like Viktor Orban and Jaroslaw Kaczynski set the tone.
Right now, the city pact is still just an idea, but a joint declaration is currently being prepared. "It's becoming increasingly concrete," said Trzaskowski.